One-Dimensional Moralism and the Scales of Class Consciousness

A few quick comments on a very slow-burning blogospheric disagreement had in the aftermath of Jodi Dean’s use of Mark’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” essay in her memorial lecture back in January.

The Cautiously Pessimistic blog and I don’t agree on Mark’s approach to class. (A valuable lesson contained within this whole debacle: if you provoke an argument by saying someone has a terrible reading of someone else, don’t expect their reading of what you have to say to be any better.)

I’ve addressed their posts on this a few times already now and I’m loathe to keep repeating myself so I don’t intend to say too much more on it. Suffice it to say that this lengthy new post is more of the same. They take my previous post to task point by point by point but still don’t seem to grasp the underlying argument. Because of this, I will respond to only one remark made in their latest response — a comment which epitomises the circular argument of all the previous posts. They write:

… the Fisher/Xenogothic approach to class also stresses individualism over collective analysis and action, because the effect of this whole line of argument about “working-class academics/media professionals/millionaires” is to make a claim about individual identity and to tell us that we shouldn’t consider academics, millionaires or whoever as a collective social category.

Mark’s (nor my) argument has nothing to do with individualism at all. That’s the persistent mistake being made here. It is precisely about class consciousness as something that is held collectively, yes, but also the roles that this “other” social category plays within that. It was Mark’s Marcusian view that we must acknowledge how such a consciousness is raised at various scales. In this regard, Cautiously Pessimistic has no sense of perspective. The ability to work across scales, as Mark did, remains a foreign concept to them.

To reduce Mark’s position on class to “collective versus individual” (still) betrays a woeful ignorant of his work and, worse still, does nothing to account for scale as an all-important factor in how we must addresses the issues at hand. Their reducing of the point to one of “individualism” is effectively equating the remarks of one celebrity and the remarks of that one bloke down the pub. Regardless of whether either person is insane or not, these are obviously not the same thing and the audience which each individual has must be taken into context, because it informs the affective nature of the content.

With this in mind, we can acknowledge that we must raise (class) consciousness through collective practice — whether that be one-on-ones or group discussions — but it is also important to note how consciousness is raised and deflated at the levels of the cultural activities that surrounds us — locally, nationally, globally. Raising consciousness locally is one thing — a necessary thing — but it’s dumb to ignore these other scales, as Cautiously Pessimistic does in their dismissal of those who have supposedly risen above their station by finding themselves within the public eye.

As such, academics and millionaires — like Russell Brand, who is the main subject of disagreement here, due to his prevalence in Mark’s original essay — may not be economically working class anymore but culturally they can remain so, and it is the elevation of that class position to a more visible position that Mark saw as inherently valuable.

Brand is an interesting figure because, whilst he might be a global megastar, he is someone who persistently recalls his working class roots, playing up to but also challenging the media stereotypes of what a person from his background should be able to do, wear, look like, think and achieve. He persistently ruptures class consciousness — in his own way — shifting its goal posts, and he does so in a way that is far more nuanced than the affective dismissal of his social mobility allows for.

Personally, I’m not much a fan of Brand, but I can see the benefit of an unruly voice like his in our media landscape, especially when all the other “working class” voices we hear are limited to the likes of Alan Sugar, for example, who never misses an opportunity to talk about how he started from nothing, etc., etc., mouthing off on his now-enormous petite-bourgeous-turned-full-bourgeois soap box. It is important to have other voices that occupy those media spaces, making visible something other than the stereotypes deemed to be acceptable by a select few.

That’s what Mark wanted for himself too, as I understand it. He wanted to be read. Brand gave Capitalist Realism a huge visibility boost by recommending it publicly and, by proxy, he gave Mark’s capital-sceptic ideas a boost too. I think Mark respected this. He respected someone like Brand giving a shit about his little book and choosing to signal-boost it despite the unpopularity of the ideas within the sphere of the tax-dodging media class he was working with which, according to Mark’s analysis, are largely complicit in his findings.

In this way, to champion Brand is not to dismiss his millionaire status but to acknowledge the particular strength of his viewpoint in spite of that.

And so, Brand was just one way in which Mark overcame the gatekeepers he decries in Exiting… who will also only allow the right kind of voices through. What Brand shows us — or has to potential to show us, if we can let ourselves let him — is the importance of working across scales and acknowledging the gatekeepers common to all of them. And in a way this is the central critique at the heart of Mark’s essay: scale is important.

Cautiously Pessimistic doesn’t get this because they’re stuck in a bubble of localism. My overarching point remains the same as it has always been. Cautiously Pessimistic‘s persistent error is that they think not allowing their ideas to be scalable allows them to retain some sense of authenticity, but all they advocate for, in the end, is a reactive “folk politics“.

In discussing Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Brand on Newsnight, Mark writes in Exiting the Vampire Castle that he “couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason”, but he then mourns the ways in which the “moralising left quickly ensured that the story was not about Brand’s extraordinary breach of the bland conventions of mainstream media ‘debate’, nor about his claim that revolution was going to happen” but instead about his “personal conduct — specifically his sexism.”

Watching the interview here again, Brand’s first responses to Paxman, right out of the gate, are spot on and worth drawing further attention to.

Paxman questions Brand’s suitability to be the guest editor of a political magazine and Brand’s response is, yes, at first, a bit sexist, but then he gets a jibe in about being about as qualified for the job as any actual politician — he mentioned Boris Johnson but George Osbourne comes to mind today — and then he says:

I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means; alternate political systems.

As distant as Brand and Fisher might be from each other in the grand scheme of things, by this comment alone it seems they shared the exact same raison d’être. Brand drags Mark’s work into his bizarre media world just as Mark would drag sci-fi and jungle into his bizarre academic world. Neither take the edges of the worlds in which they are situated as providing them with a blinkered authority through which to gaze at the world around them. They let the outside in as a vector for the inflation of consciousness across scales.

Mark’s essay took a huge risk in picking up Brand’s point, aimed at Paxman as the momentary representative of an Oxbridge media class and instead pointing its sharp end squarely at the Left. He effectively equates the moralising Left with Paxman in this interview and in many instances they do look similar. However, it is far more embarrassing for the Left because their persistent moralising and gatekeeping is little more than an exercise in cutting off their nose despite their face.

When Brand’s individual misconduct overrides the good he does for a broader movement, then we’re doing nothing but wasting opportunities. That is not to say that his sexism should go unchallenged but by making that the main story you do nothing but score an own goal. That’s what the left is so good at: own goals. And as any supporter should feel free to do, when your team keeps scoring own goal after own goal, it shouldn’t be remiss to tell them you think they’re fucking morons because they make us all look stupid.

The issue people always raise is that Brand is a bad role model for Mark to pick but that’s precisely why he resonates. He isn’t perfect, but nor is any other spokesperson in the public eye, just as no buzzword or theory is wholly pure either — we’ve seen a lot of that around these parts recently (here and here). The point, repeated ad nauseum, echoes down the years: it should be possible to critique individual wrongdoing whilst not having to scrap that which is otherwise valuable to collective struggle. (Julian Assange is the perfect example of this this week — we can critique his individual behaviour whilst decrying the broader significance of his arrest for future state whistleblowers.)

Mark’s essay makes this same point explicitly, I think, when we writes:

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree — on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.

In that spirit of things, I’m glad to be able to have a back and forth with Cautiously Pessimistic but that’s not to say that this debate is remotely productive anymore. That’s obvious by the fact that they end on the same point they’ve made previously: if Mark wrote so much other good stuff, why keep focusing on Exiting…?

The answer is simple: because this moralising hasn’t stopped and it remains a major obstacle to any sort of movement building we might desire going forwards. Left bullying and McCarthyism is still endemic, six years on from the essay’s original publication, and whilst many have lionised Fisher since his death, focussing on what they liked about his work, the questions he raised which people didn’t like are even more deserving of decent responses.

For me personally, what Mark skewers so succinctly remains far more damaging than what is supposedly being guarded against. I made the same point on Twitter just last night, in fact:

1 Comment

Leave a Reply